Magazine article American Cinematographer

Beneath the Surface

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Beneath the Surface

Article excerpt

The Secret Ufe of Marilyn Monroe is a four-hour Lifetime miniseries that follows the tumultuous rise of Norma Jeane Mortenson (Kelli Garner) from displaced child to global cinema icon. Having seen director Laurie Collyer's earlier films Sherrybaby (AC Sept. '06) and Sunlight Jr., Chris Manley, ASC knew he was on the right team. "I knew she would be able to bring the most out of the cast and get amazing performances," he says. "A story that deals with mental illness both in Marilyn and her mother, Gladys [Susan Sarandon], was something we hadn't seen before and would be an interesting one to tell."

The narrative covers four decades, and care was taken to give each era its own distinctive look. For reference, Collyer amassed an abundance of publicity shots, portraiture and documentary stills of Monroe's public appearances. The 1982 film Frances - shot by Laszlo Kovac, ASC (AC March '83) - was also influential, as it spanned some of the same decades and depicted an actress' struggle with mental health.

The production rented two Arri Alexa Classics from Panavision Toronto, as Manley prefers working with the company's Primo lightweight zooms - specifically the 15-40mm (T2.6) and the 27-75mm (T2.6). Manley had tested them during his tenure on Mad Men (AC Oct. '09) and found them equal to primes in sharpness and lack of distortion. "They don't barrel or keystone, and they don't breathe when you rack focus. Plus it's a quick swap to a prime, when necessary." The Angenieux Optimo 45-120mm (T2.8) was another favorite. "When you need to go beyond 75mm, it's also a quick change," the cinematographer adds. The production also carried a 24275mm Primo zoom (12.8) and a full set of Primo primes. The Alexa footage was captured onto SxS cards.

Manley sought to decrease image contrast and imbue the shadows with a color bias, and so, through most of the shoot, he paired the Alexas with an Arri Varicon. The Varicon is a descendant of the ColorFlex - later renamed Lightflex - which Gerry Turpin, BSC invented in order to make it possible for negative flashing to be applied in-camera rather than being relegated to the lab. The flashing process affects the shadows and midrange while leaving skin tones and highlights unaffected.

"It gives you more exposure in the shadows by lifting the toe of the characteristic curve," says Manley. "The Varicon can be dimmed up or down to taste." The process also intensifies the latent image, so that otherwise undetectable details become visible in the shadows.

Before determining to use the Varicon, Manley explained the look he wanted to Technicolor Los Angeles colorist Tim Vincent, who said he could achieve the effect in postproduction with Autodesk Lustre, but increased noise would result. The cinematographer also considered filters, but the Varicon was ultimately favored for its ability to boost exposure and preserve the image integrity.

For scenes set in the 1930s, Roscolux 99 Chocolate was added to the Varicon gel holder, and colors were skewed toward a muted, pastel palette. The 1940s replaced Chocolate with Lee 728 Steel Green as secondary colors were introduced, including yellow. And with the mid-20th-century rise of Technicolor came an increase in saturation and primary colors; though Manley used the Varicon to lift the blacks in these scenes occasionally, he did not color-bias the shadows. These looks were further finessed with decade-specific LUTs made with the help of Vincent and digital-imaging technician Baha Nurlybayev; final-color responsibilities were shared between Tim Vincent in Los Angeles and Brett Trider of Technicolor Toronto.

The Varicon slides into two filter slots on an Arri MB-14 matte box, adding awkward weight that makes it best suited for studio-mode shooting. Nonetheless, Manley always opted for whatever opérâting mode was most appropriate for the scene at hand. When Monroe is rehearsing All About Eve with acting coach Natasha Lytess (Embeth Davidtz), she shrinks from a window, claiming to hear voices outside; at Monroe's insistence, Lytess hurries to extinguish every light. …

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